Thirty years later, Munson still loved and respected

Fans, family and teammates reflect on Munson's legacy
08/02/2009 11:05 AM ET
By Jon Lane /

Thurman Munson played every inning of every game with
grit and desire. (AP)
Hours had passed. The house was dark and the clubhouse finally empty. What's normally a sanctuary had been the eye of a storm that blistered through the Bronx throughout one crazy summer when everything except David Berkowitz was ignored by a business-like team built for the business of winning. But the turmoil surrounding them, centered on the owner, manager, star and captain, turned privacy into a forum.

Before spring turned into summer, Thurman Munson grew to dislike Reggie Jackson in light of derogatory comments published in SPORT Magazine. That fall Jackson proved what he was made of by clubbing three home runs in Game 6 of the World Series. Champions for the first time in 15 years, the Yankees celebrated before dispersing to various points in Manhattan for all-night after-parties. Back in the Bronx, shortly after Jackson became the first World Series MVP for two different teams, he stood at his locker getting changed. One of a few left in the clubhouse was Munson and Ray Negron, the team's batboy. As the Captain headed for the exit he turned to Jackson and said: "I still can't believe what a great performance you put on tonight."

"They looked each other in the eyes," Negron said. "And then Thurman left."

  • Munson still loved and respected
  • Reflections on Thurman: 30 years later
  • Munson's death still tough
  • Girardi Q&A: Catcher to catcher
  • Five Days in August - Part I
  • Five Days in August - Part II
  • Five Days in August - Part III
  • Five Days in August - Part IV
  • Five Days in August - Part V
  • Lane: Lidle another Yankee gone way too soon
  • Giangrande: Munson's death left a void
  • Lane: No. 15 for the Hall
  • Lane: Book pays homage to Munson
  • Family remembers Munson
  • Ed Lucas talks with Diana Munson
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part I
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part II
  • Yankeeography: Thurman Munson - Part III
  • Remembering Thurman Munson

Munson and Jackson never grew to be best friends, but they bonded enough to where Munson invited Jackson to fly aboard his cherished Cessna Citation. According to the book "Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain" written by Marty Appel, Jackson penned Munson a check covering all expenses. Munson never cashed it. He was never one to accept return favors. Because of who he was, the way he played the game - more so than how good he was - and how lived life with honesty and bravery, the pain from Munson's death 30 years ago resonates strongly today as it did when word spread that his plane crashed near Akron-Canton Regional Airport on August 2, 1979.

The man who held the Yankees together was gone. The rest were lost without him.

"Thurman was a genius," Negron said. "He knew how to walk through the clubhouse and not say a word -- just be seen. It showed you the man is in the house, let's wake up. Every once in a while, we needed that. And when Thurman respected Reggie, the rest of the team accepted him."

To this day Munson's legacy remains accepted and honored. Stop by Yankee Stadium and you'll see many wearing No. 15 shirts, by and large middle-aged, slightly overweight, blue-collar looking guys.

"To me," said Appel, "that's beautiful."

Munson built a shopper's list of credentials that many believe are enough to have him in the Hall of Fame: A seven-time All-Star, Munson hit 113 home runs with 701 RBIs and a career batting average of .292 over a 10-year career and was the first captain named by the Yankees since Lou Gehrig. He did his best work when it mattered, which is how reputations are determined in New York. He batted .373 in 16 World Series games, including an incredible .529 with a Series-record six straight hits when the Yankees were swept by the Reds in 1976.

Players then and now are both productive and tough. But to be Thurman tough, that's another level. Even at age 22, just up from the Minors, Munson had the feel of a seasoned veteran. He debuted on August 8, 1969, the second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Batting eighth, Munson went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored. Four nights later, Roy White, Munson's longest-tenured teammate, saw Chapter 1 of the Munson Legacy unfold from his perch in left field when Twins catcher Johnny Roseboro took off for second base in the fifth inning of a 2-2 game.

"All of a sudden the ball was already at second; I didn't even see it leave his hand," White said. "I was like, 'Oh my God. I've never seen a guy get rid of a ball that fast as a catcher!' He looked like a second baseman on a double-play pivot. Then he came up a few innings later and hit a nice line-drive base hit to left field. Right then I said this is really going to be a special player. He wasn't in awe of being in the Major Leagues. He belonged right away."

Bill Stimers worked as for Entenmann's Bakery in Babylon, N.Y., and years later delivered goods to the Yankee Stadium offices for principal owner George Steinbrenner and employees. "Bill the Baker" was there when Munson hit his first home run in his second game, a 5-1 Yankees win in which Munson, White, Gene Michael and Bobby Murcer all went yard and starting pitcher Fritz Peterson broke A's outfielder Rick Monday's ribs. Unique about Stimers, a staple at Yankee Stadium since the 1970s, is his recollection of every detail of every game he's attended.

"When he first came up," Stimers recalls, "[New York Post beat writer] Maury Allen told him, 'Welcome to the Yankees.' Munson said, 'Yeah, what took them so long?'"

It didn't take long for anyone to understand that what Munson did behind the plate mattered most. ("It touches so many more people and so many aspects of the game," he said in 1975.) When current Yankees catcher Jorge Posada found a picture of Munson on the wall of Fenway Park's weight room with the inscription, he took it and hung it in his locker at the old Yankee Stadium.

"He wasn't the prettiest thing to watch," said Joe Torre, himself an All-Star catcher. "The way he played the game - and he was a great hitter - it didn't have to always be picture perfect, but he was going to get the job done. That's the one thing I always respected in watching him play. He was the guy who these New York fans always loved, the guy who was going to go home dirty every day. That's what it was all about."

There was also a human side to Munson few saw. He was perceived as a grouch and many asked Diana Dominick Munson how she could have married someone with such a cranky disposition. Alas, that was relegated to public perception. At home Thurman wore wigs and put on comedy routines to make his children laugh. One winter the Munsons neglected to put away their lawn furniture and it was covered in snow. Thurman and the kids dressed in their snow suits and ended up reclining on the chairs like it was the middle of summer.

Diana took a picture and owns it to this day.

"That's the human side of Thurman Munson," Diana said. "Here's a tough-as-nails man and he cried when his babies were born. He was special."

His love for family priceless, Munson had to be with them every free day, which is why he learned to fly. Through 97 games of the 1979 season, Munson's power numbers were in steep decline and by July 29, his aching knees no longer able to sustain the catching load, he was shifted to first base. On August 1 in Chicago, Munson went 0-for-1 with a walk and strikeout before he was replaced by Jim Spencer. After the game he boarded his plane and went home. While he and Lou Piniella were staying at Murcer's home, there was one of many attempts to talk him out of flying. It was one thing to love it and another to be home, but at what risk?

And at what price?

"He loved his children. He loved his wife, Diana. That's why he wanted to fly," Stimers said. "George tried to talk him out of it, Lou Piniella did too. They didn't mind him flying, but they didn't want him to fly that jet. That was the problem."

Munson's death became a 'Where were you when it happened?' moment, one nobody wished occurred or can forget. Phil Pepe covered the Yankees for the New York Daily News from 1971 to 1984. He hadn't turned on a radio or television when a friend called to tell him Munson had perished. He called the paper and was immediately assigned a reaction story. One player he reached was White, and while the conversation was a blur, the feeling was devastating. The only thing White could do was find his wife and hold her tight.

"I asked him, 'What are you talking about?'" White said. "When he told me I was like, 'You gotta be kidding me. It was the first time I really had somebody close to pass away like that, and under those circumstances too. When I think about that, 30 years is just incredible to me."

Torre was managing the Mets when a bulletin flashed on Shea Stadium's scoreboard.

"We were at-bat and I got up on the steps, and when it came up on the scoreboard to my right, I was just stunned," Torre said. "I remember [Lee] Mazzilli just turned around and looked at me. It was just so shocking. All of a sudden it's over. A couple of words on the scoreboard and somebody's life is snuffed out. It was just unbelievable. I think everybody just took a hit that day."

Mickey Morabito was Yankees' PR director in 1979 and was called into a staff meeting where Steinbrenner looked up and said repeatedly, "We lost Thurman." Morabito's first thought was he was missing, until Steinbrenner confirmed he was killed and a state of shock took over the room.

"It was one of those things that's so overwhelming you don't have a chance to have all your emotions come through yet," Morabito said. "It didn't seem real, but unfortunately, shortly, we realized it was."

Morabito was given the unfortunate responsibility of informing manager Billy Martin, extremely tight with Munson and on a fishing trip with his son in New Jersey. A burning feeling within the pit of his stomach, Morabito got Martin on the phone and said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but Thurman was, uh, killed in, you know, a small plane crash today."

"He didn't even react," Morabito recalled. "He just started crying. Not 'Wow, what happened?' No reaction, he just started crying. Billy was a very emotional guy. He's very quick to get mad, but he's also very quick to cry."

Invited to the funeral, Torre traveled to Canton on the Yankees charter with permission from the Mets and recalls Martin sobbing uncontrollably on the plane. Somehow Diana Munson, as told by Appel in his book, was an amazing pillar of strength. Dealing with a public tragedy and the loss of her husband, Diana arranged the funeral and welcomed guests into her home before paying her final respects.

"I really believe that my faith got me through it," Diana said. "Let's face it, you can't be weak if you're married to Thurman Munson. He taught me how to be a tough girl. Even though I'm Italian and emotional, and the tears flow easily, when I have to suck it up, just like he did, then I think I do too. I actually learned from him. I taught him how to be tender and loving. He taught me how to be tough."


Thurman Munson's No. 15 was retired days after his death. (AP)

On the day the Yankees buried their captain, they flew home for a game against the Orioles that ended with Murcer's dramatic opposite-field single that plated the tying and winning runs. Sitting in the stands, Joe Berryman recalls pure sadness mixed with anticipation. More than any point during the season, the fans wanted a win. Murcer - with Piniella Munson's closest friend on the team - was the one put in the position to change the story. Maybe it was Munson's spirit at work.

"Everybody in the stands was playing through Bobby Murcer," Berryman said. "When he hit that home run it was like, God ... it was something you were hoping for and he did it. You were just glad you were out there being part of the game after such sadness. It started very sad and then it built up."

Diana has helped parlay Munson's legacy into raising millions for the AHRC New York City Foundation, a non-profit organization which benefits children and adults with developmental disabilities, since the inception of the Thurman Munson Awards dinner 30 years ago. Many Yankees past and present, including Posada, Johnny Damon, Mike Mussina, Rich Gossage and more, have been honored for excellence in competition and philanthropic work within the community.

"It's why, 30 years later, people are still wearing the uniform number and turning out for his dinner," Diana said. "He was more than baseball and more than Yankee. He was a hero in life, and I don't think there are a lot of heroes anymore. There aren't enough people who have the integrity and character ... he could have been bigger than he was and I think people respect that."

Once, Pepe asked Munson to recommend a certain brand of catcher's mitt for his 14-year-old son, Jim. He never received a referral, instead one of Munson's personal mitts that Jim owns to this day. Another time Munson learned that Pepe was having marital problems. The first day of Spring Training, Munson asked Pepe how he was getting along. Pepe was coping, but having a tough time being away from his children for six weeks, especially his youngest son, at that time four years old.

"Why don't you bring him down here?" Munson suggested.

Pepe countered with the realities of having a job to do and the expenses of flying the kids down.

"That's when Thurman said something I never will forget and always will cherish," Pepe said. "'If you need money to bring your son to Spring Training, all you have to do is ask me and you've got it.'"

Pepe couldn't accept, citing a conflict of interest, but contends the mere offer probably helped him lose a bit of objectivity where Munson was concerned. Such was the influence of Thurman Lee Munson. Even those who aren't (or weren't) baseball fans cheered for him. The understanding of balls and strikes weren't required. Munson played with heart and competed with soul, and that was more than good enough.

"People still love him and still respect him. That touches my heart and touches my family's heart," Diana said. "He would have never guessed that 30 years later we'd be still talking about him. He could be a rascal when he wanted to, but God Bless him. These smart people in New York, they got him. They got him."

Jon Lane can be reached at comments